Smart Data, Smart Cities
Peter Sondergaard, a senior vice president with information research firm Gartner, once likened data to being the oil of the 21st century. He quantified that prediction by stating that “oil is just useless thick goop until you refine it into oil. And it’ s this fuel – proprietary algorithms that solve specific problems that translate into actions – that will be the secret sauce of successful organizations in the future.” Sondergaard added that the “next digital gold rush will be focused on how you do something with data, not just what you do with it. This is the promise of the algorithm economy.”
He wrote those words 18 months ago and since then much has transpired. The Internet of Things (IoT) revolution is happening at warp speed, with upwards of 20+ billion devices working their way into everything from building automation systems to the smart city and real progress is actually taking place for utilities, municipalities and organizations that embark on this burgeoning digital journey. Advances are happening so quickly that society today is inexorably being made up of those that get it and those that don’t and if you are part of the latter, a forced career change could come quickly.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the building industry and it appears there are some who need to crawl before they walk when it comes to understanding the importance of a smart building being connected to a smart infrastructure. Peter Ronson, vice president of Markham District Energy, says that “the whole big data thing is probably over-utilized, over-marketed and with hype around that. A lot of buildings have building management systems, but a lot of it comes down to, ‘OK, are we actually using this stuff.’ I was in a building in our system that will go unnamed a few years ago and they had a problem. I asked the building manager ‘ where is your BMS?’ and he replied, ‘ we actually have one?’ Literally, he didn’t know where it was – he had never touched it.
“My point is let’s use what we have before we get to the fancier stuff. If we can get past the basics, yes, there is promise of being able to harness and being able to use collectively the devices and the buildings to manage their loads in concert with the rest of the buildings on a system.”
A Slow-Adoption Industry
Kurtis McBride, CEO and co-founder of Waterloo, Ont.-based Miovision, is in a unique position when it comes to analyzing and commenting on the merits of the smart city. The company he and two fellow University of Waterloo students started in 2005 developed technology that is currently used by 650 customers in 50 countries to gain insights into their transportation networks. Miovision has created an intelligent transportation system called Spectrum, which is installed in a traffic cabinet and can provide valuable data that can change how a city operates.
The firm is in expansion mode and because of that, McBride is not only a technologist with a firm grip on how best to create a smart city, but he has also immersed himself in the building design process as a result of a project called Catalyst 137 in downtown Kitchener, Ont., first announced in June and described at the time as a “shared vision” between himself and Frank Voisin, founder of Toronto-based Voisin Capital. Once it is completed this summer, plans call for Voisin to manage the real estate side of the initiative and Miovision as the lead tenant to “handle the technology ecosystem, turning the building and its surrounding area into a sensor-packed tech-friendly space.”
For McBride, who says the goal is to make Catalyst 137 a “one-stop shop for hardware companies to build their products, access the support services they need and then showcase the new technology” right there, the building design stage has certainly been interesting. “One of my mentors told me once that being naïve was an asset,” he says. “I am involved in the Catalyst 137 project and it is my first development project. I am a technology guy and don’ t know the first thing about building buildings, but got involved in this project through happenstance.
“What strikes me about the design process when it comes to building is this: the people I am working with – the architects and consultants – have done this a thousand times and done it a certain way all the time. Things like HVAC systems; they are stuck in the 1980s. You sit down with the structural guys and they talk about snow load and how that is a big problem, but when you talk to the HVAC guys they talk about how they made the unit lighter, which actually means nothing to the structural experts because snow weighs 10 times more than the actual unit.”
McBride says there is an opportunity inside the building envelope to rethink all sorts of things, whether talking about lighting, motion sensors, and the intelligence behind how HVAC systems get deployed. Security is another prime example –it is, he adds, still all based on key fobs and keypads as opposed to biometrics.
“Even if the technology is available today to make buildings smarter, the structure of how the industry comes up with design is not willing to take risk because it is so price-sensitive and risk adverse that I don’ t know how new concepts would ever find themselves into buildings. I don’ t know how you are going to overcome that, but it is probably the biggest problem that the industry has. It is structurally set up to avoid innovating.”
“I don’t know the first thing about building a building, but I surround myself with people who do and use the power of ignorance to drive them to places where they are not usually comfortable going. My experience is that if you measure something you never measured before, it generally improves by 25 per cent over a short period of time. That is the order of magnitude in terms of the opportunity to improve energy consumption, traffic efficiency and even things like insulation envelopes in buildings. It could have a massive impact.”
But It’s All Possible
Ronson, meanwhile, sums up the current situation this way: it’s all possible and really all it takes is the motivated building manager or the motivated aggregator to pull it all together. “When you start to aggregate systems together there are economies of scale and you can do interesting things, but if we have segregated devices, segregated buildings, segregated energy loads you don’ t have the opportunity until you can pull it all together. We have lots of features right now, but we are not seeing a lot of benefits.”
The so-called smart city will be nurtured by the smart building and a prime example of that is Telus Garden in Vancouver, designed by Henriquez Partners Architects and developed by Westbank Projects. Sustainability features include a rainwater recycling system for grey water and irrigation, solar panels that capture solar energy to power exterior lighting, triple-glazed windows to help maintain a consistent temperature, sun tracking system that automatically adjusts interior blinds, and a raised floor with a displacement ventilation system that allows for a 100 per cent fresh air supply rather than recycled air. According to a Telus fact sheet, sustainability features “will reduce CO2 emissions by more than one million kilograms annually, the equivalent of planting 25,000 trees every year.”
Rhiannon Mabberley, a development manager with Westbank, says that while there are 22,000 set points in existence and the building is extremely sophisticated in that sense, they are only valuable if you have a team that (a) cares about it and (b) knows how to manage the data. “We can spend millions of dollars to build the most energy-efficient and sustainable building in this world, but if every person there leaves the lights on, the taps running, refuses to compost and does not car pool, doing all these individual behaviours will impact the performance of the building,” she says. “It undermines how efficient the building is if the people using it don’ t care about those values.
“Obviously we have to start with the infrastructure because if you build an energy hog right off the bat, you are going to be so far down the spectrum on energy savings you are not going to be able to catch up with individual use. But if you can start with that capital infrastructure and then layer on the individual behaviors to make it worthwhile and further improve that building’ s efficiency and sustainability over the course of its lifetime, then you are really talking about substantial change.”
If the building itself helps to impact behaviours and change those behaviours then you are really taking it one step further, says Mabberley. She also points out that there is no slowing down the smart building and smart city movement: “It is the future of development and certainly as we see cities become more and more concerned with their energy use it is becoming much more prevalent in our day-to-day conversations and our political conversations. Everything is moving in that direction. You see cities with more aggressive emission targets and they only make those targets by either retrofitting older buildings and ensuring all new buildings are built to more stringent standards. In terms of energy use, building automation is one of the biggest items that allow you to track that data.”
From Building to City
There are also numerous examples of what a so-called smart city can accomplish. In April 2015, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched What Works Cities, a national initiative it described as a “way to help 100 mid-size American municipalities enhance their use of data” in order to improve services, inform local decision-making and engage residents. Since the launch, the program has produced 130 resources that cities around the world “are using to improve their communities and drive better outcomes for residents.” Meanwhile, also in 2015, a Strategic Summit entitled Enabling Economies for the Future took place at Harvard University with one goal in mind: embark on a critical discussion “about what cities need to do, how to do it, and how to prepare for the rapidly-approaching future.”
Sponsored by Dell Computer and hosted by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Centre at Harvard (TECH), Prof. David Ricketts, chair of the summit, wrote a white paper outlining summit discussions that the city of the future “looks very different from the one that has been the cornerstone of society for the past centuries. No longer are cities merely functioning as sources of infrastructure – and as common, centralized locations for brick-and-mortar companies. They are now becoming hubs of social cohesion. Citizens choose to live in them based on the availability of amenities and social and economic opportunities.”
Findings from the summit and research conducted by economic data forecasting and analytics firm IHS Economics resulted in Dell last April recognizing 50 cities around the world for “embracing technology and thriving in an ever-changing and globalized future.” While Toronto ranked eleventh on its list, of note is that no other Canadian city made the grade. Cities in order of ranking above Toronto were San Jose, San Francisco, Singapore, London, Washington, Boston, Austin, Raleigh, Stockholm and Sydney.
“Backed by insights from experts in the public sector, technology firms, the start-up community and higher education, we developed a methodology to evaluate the degree to which city economics are Future-Ready,” says James Diffley, senior director at IHS Economics. “These ratings will enable cities to take actions that will position them to capitalize on opportunities for the future.”
There were similar sentiments contained in the Smart City Playbook, commissioned by Finnish networking vendor Nokia and released in November 2016 that identifies best practices from 22 smart cities around the world. Developed by Machina Research, the study “uncovered significant diversity in the smart cities strategies of different cities, but identified three distinct routes that cities are taking to make themselves smarter.” These include the anchor route that involves a city deploying a single application to address a pressing problem such as traffic congestion; the platform route that involves building the underlying infrastructure needed to support a wide variety of applications and services; and the beta route, which involves municipalities testing multiple applications as pilots to see how they perform before making a long term-deployment.
“No one said becoming a smart city would be easy,” said Jeremy Green, principal analyst at Machina Research and author of the report. “There are lots of choices to be made. The technology and business models are evolving rapidly, so there are many degrees of uncertainty. Standards are emerging, but are by no means finalized. There is no ‘ royal road’ to smartness, but there is a right way to travel – with your eyes open, with realistic expectations and with a willingness to learn from others.”